Behind the Masks: Exploring Culture through Art and Poetry
Written by Judi Moreillon for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) website readwritethink.org, this Common Core-aligned unit engages high school students in a study of the relationship between masks and cultures. Students research mask-making from various cultures, draw sketches of the masks, and take notes that highlight the connections between the masks and the cultural practices of the people who created them. They then recreate the cultural masks they've learned about and compose poetry to reveal their understanding and appreciation of these cultural artifacts. Students then analyze aspects of their own culture and create personal masks and poetry to reflect their culture and themselves. This unit can be completed in four to six weeks. For updates to this lesson plan and more resources for teachers, visit readwritethink.org.
- Develop a research strategy to find accurate, relevant, and appropriate information using electronic and print sources.
- Maintain notes and information completely and accurately using note-taking strategies and graphic organizers.
- Analyze and interpret how elements of culture influence the visual characteristics, purpose, and message of works of art.
- Gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for various cultures through research, examination of cultural masks, and writing of poetry.
- Synthesize research information for a defined purpose of reproducing a mask from the culture studied and composing a poem to express the meaning behind the mask.
- Identify poetic devices in poetry and apply those devices when composing original poetry.
- Make personal connections by reflecting on their individual culture, designing a personal mask, and expressing the meaning behind their mask through poetry.
Coordinate with a teacher–librarian during this segment to assist students in researching masks from various cultures. The teacher–librarian can be responsible for gathering print and electronic resources on cultural masks. He or she may also teach online research strategies, help facilitate students' note-taking, and share in the evaluation of students' work.
- Initiate the unit of study by posing the question: How do people's artifacts (or handmade objects) reflect their culture?
- Facilitate a brief discussion of cultural features, including spiritual practices and beliefs, symbolism, gender roles and responsibilities, and access to natural resources and raw materials.
- Review the Cultural Mask Research Graphic Organizer with students, paying special attention to the cultural information questions included. Review also the Cultural Mask Research Rubric, which will be used to evaluate students' proficiency in the research process and completion of the graphic organizer.
- Direct students to the Cultural Masks Resources Pathfinder, and assist them in locating examples of masks on the web. This site provides a list of related websites about various cultural masks for quick access. Searching instructions are also provided.
- Ask each student to search independently and choose one mask for which he or she can find related cultural information. (Depending on your involvement, you may want to approve the students' selected masks before having them proceed.)
- Have each student complete the Cultural Mask Research Graphic Organizer based on the mask he or she selected. This involves citing the online source, taking notes on the culture of the mask, sketching the mask, and answering the cultural information questions on the handout. The student will also need to locate the continent and/or country from which his or her mask originated on the map on the second page.
- Encourage students to also consult print resources on their cultural masks to gather additional information (see Suggested Booklist for Cultural Mask Research). Students should make sure to take notes and cite their sources properly.
- While research is in progress, review some of the students' notes and graphic organizers, paying particular attention to the criteria on the Cultural Mask Research Rubric. Collect examples to show students how you qualify a rubric score of 6 points versus 0 points. Provide also examples of exemplary, effective, adequate, insufficient, inadequate, and incomplete work. Challenge students to stretch their thinking and revise their answers to reach for the exemplary level.
- Provide time for students to assess their completed graphic organizers and notes using the Cultural Mask Research Rubric. Students will need to justify their scores by circling specific examples from their work. All materials should then be turned in for teacher assessment. (The rubric outlines a total of 60 points, 30 from the student's self-evaluation and 30 from the teacher assessment.)
- Coordinate with the art teacher upon completion of research to facilitate the creation of cultural masks. Students can use their notes and sketches to create accurate reproductions (except for the materials used) of the cultural masks they researched. Depending on the resources available in your art program, you may suggest clay masks, papier-mâché masks, or paper or cardboard masks. If time is limited, students may simply draw their cultural masks in detail.
While students are creating their cultural masks in art class, they can be reading and responding to mask-themed poetry and reviewing literary elements in language arts class.
- Have students read several of the following poems about masks, while sharing corresponding mask artwork (see Preparation, 4):
- Ask students to think about and discuss the connections between each of the following published poems and the paired mask image.
"Hiding in the Mask" by Ellen Bauer
"We Wear the Mask" by Paul Lawrence Dunbar
"Aztec Mask" by Carl Sandburg
"Mask" by Carl Sandburg
- Have students review the Poetic Devices web page. Discuss poetic devices as tools poets use to achieve meaning with just a few carefully selected words.
- Divide the class into four groups with each group assigned to one of the published poems linked at the bottom of the Poetic Devices page. Have students work in their groups to identify the poetic devices used in the poem they were assigned.
- Provide time for each group to report their findings to the class by providing specific examples of the poetic devices used in their assigned poem. Use this opportunity to evaluate whether students understand the poetic devices and can recognize examples of them in poetry.
Creation of cultural masks should be completed before beginning this segment of the lesson.
- Present a photograph of a cultural mask and provide some background information about its use and the culture from which it originated (see Preparation, 8).
- Have students use the photograph and the cultural information you provided to brainstorm poetic words and connections that relate to the mask. Model for students how they can group similar words and ideas in a web (see sample web and poem and Preparation, 6).
- Use the web and a shared writing experience to compose a class poem related to the cultural mask. As you are writing, make sure to point out how students are incorporating different poetic devices into the poem. The following guidelines are recommended:
- Situate the context of the poem in the ritual or event that the cultural mask was originally used.
- Set the tone or mood of the poem to reflect the gaiety or seriousness of the cultural context of the mask. For example, a poem related to a mask used for a funeral will be somber in tone.
- Incorporate information about the natural resources used to create the mask and the cultural beliefs, gender, and practices of the people who made the mask.
- Use sensory images (i.e., sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound) to describe the mask and its cultural significance.
- Use at least three poetic devices in the poem, as listed on the Poetic Devices web page.
- Demonstrate your understanding of the cultural meaning behind the mask.
- Have students work in pairs to assess the class poem using the Mask Poem Rubric. Discuss the strengths of the poem and have students make suggestions for improvement. Note: If you are teaching this unit to different classes at the same time, use the same mask photograph and share the class poems with each class to provide students with an experience of the diversity of responses to art.
- Have students use the cultural masks they created in art class to follow the same process independently and write poems related to their masks. Students should make sure to consult their Cultural Mask Research Graphic Organizer and any other notes they have about the culture from which the mask originated. Remind students to brainstorm words and phrases that relate to the mask and organize their ideas into a web. Students should also consult the Mask Poem Rubric and make sure that their poem incorporates the required elements.
- Have each student evaluate his or her poem using the Mask Poem Rubric. Students should use the middle column labeled as "self-evaluation," and will need to provide examples of each of the criterion in order to earn credit.
- Evaluate each student's work using the right-hand column of the same rubric. If your assessment differs from the student's self-evaluation, explain the discrepancy as a note on the rubric or schedule a conference to discuss the rubric with the student.
During this segment, students will couple their understanding of the cultural meanings behind masks with their creativity to create personal masks reflecting their own cultures. The art teacher can facilitate mask making while the language arts teacher guides the composition and assessment of students' personal mask poems.
- Prompt students to think about and brainstorm aspects of their personal cultures. As a starting point, you might first model aspects of your own culture by recording information about your ethnicity, religious beliefs, family configuration and traditions, celebrated holidays, hobbies, and lifestyle.
- Then select aspects of your culture that are most representative of your persona and can be expressed most visually in a mask. Sketch a personal mask and decide when it would be used, such as for a holiday, religious celebration, sporting event, or family activity.
- Have students brainstorm aspects of their cultures and sketch masks that are reflective of their individual personas. Have students decide when or for what purpose their masks would be most appropriately used.
- Coordinate with the art teacher again, and give students an opportunity to create personal masks that reflect aspects of their individual cultures, using either the same materials used when making cultural masks or materials related to the event for which the mask would be used. Again, if time is limited, students can simply draw their masks.
- Using their created masks and the notes and information about their personal cultures, students can then brainstorm poetic words and connections for their masks and organize their ideas in a web.
- Then, have students write personal poems, using their masks and webs as inspiration, to explain how their masks reflect their individual cultures and themselves. The same guidelines apply as was used when writing the cultural mask poem.
- Have each student self-evaluate his or her personal mask poem using the Mask Poem Rubric. Note that students must again give examples of each criterion in order to earn full credit.
- Use the same rubric to assess students' work, and conference with those students who had difficulty providing examples in their poems for each criterion on the rubric.
- Display students' personal masks and poetry in the library so that other students in the school can share in their work.
- Hold a reception for other students, teachers, and parents. Advertise the event with posters, flyers, a newsletter, or a notice in the school newspaper. Plan for a few students to read their poems aloud at the reception while a classmate wears or holds the corresponding masks.
- Create a PowerPoint slideshow to be linked to the school's website using selected masks and poems from each class period.
- Cultural Mask Research Rubric. This rubric is used to assess how well students were able to locate and record accurate, relevant, and appropriate electronic and print information. The rubric evaluates both the form (type of notes taken) and the content (ideas and citations) of students' notes. It also evaluates their completion of the Cultural Mask Research Graphic Organizer, and in particular their responses to the cultural questions included.
- Mask Poem Rubric. This rubric is used to assess student's composition of cultural and personal mask poems. The main criteria include:
- Prewriting web. The student brainstorms poetic words and connections related to the cultural or personal mask and organizes his or her ideas in a web.
- Cultural relationship. The student's poem reflects the cultural context of the mask. In particular, the poem makes use of sensory images (i.e., sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound) to describe the mask and mimics the tone or mood of the mask's original purpose. The poem also demonstrates the student's understanding of the meaning behind the mask.
- Poetic devices. The poem includes at least three poetic devices and shows the student's understanding of these literary elements.
Students use the Mask Poem Rubric for self-evaluation, and must also justify their scores by citing specific examples from their poems. Teachers use the same rubric to assess students' understanding of the concepts and completion of the assignments.